So Close . . . And Yet So Far
I sat down on the thin cushion of the airline seat, stuck between two oversized, malodorous men. I had requested an aisle seat, but like everything else in my life at that time, something went wrong.
It was a rough season of traveling the country speaking at camps, churches, and youth events, but never feeling like God was watching out for me. I considered it a season of silence at best, a season of neglect at worst.
What’s more, for several months I’d endured an unrelenting series of hassles, headaches, and heartaches. From flat tires to friend conflicts, missed airline connections to money worries—it was one vexing thing after another.
I never doubted if God was in control, but I often doubted if He really cared about how I felt.
Shifting in my seat, I grabbed a pen from my coat and the throw-up bag from the seat back pocket, because it was the only piece of paper I could find. I pulled down the tray table and wriggled into the most feasible writing position I could–elbows tight against my body, shoulders hunched, head tilted. I looked like a T-Rex as I prepared to journal out my discouraged heart. The two massive hulks of humanity flanking me were, thankfully, sound asleep. Good—I could purge my heavy heart without fear of prying eyes. It seemed fitting that I was going to throw up all my thoughts, messy as they would be, on the back of a barf bag.
At first, I hesitated—mostly to ensure my privacy, but also because I wasn’t sure where to start. Part of me didn’t even want God to know how I felt about Him. I thought He might choose to sideline me from the speaking circuit that I loved.
Yet flashes of King David’s honesty in the Psalms lit up my mind. If God was big enough to handle David’s raw, unrestrained thoughts, I supposed he could handle mine. So I scrawled in big, bold letters:
God Is Nowhere
Maybe I didn’t believe it, but that is what I felt. Bible school and my parents had taught me that God is everywhere, but at the time, it sure didn’t feel like it.
I kept outlining the letters on the bag, over and over, tracing what I had already written: GOD IS NOWHERE.
As I remember, there where other words scribbled around that thought, but they just stemmed from that three-word phrase. I prayed, scribbled, prayed, traced the letters, and prayed some more.
Then, at a cruising altitude of thirty-five thousand feet somewhere over planet earth, it suddenly hit me: God was right with me. He wasn’t hiding. He was just waiting for me to return to Him.
His silence beckoned me to come closer. He waited, and it was up to me to take a step toward Him. By finally being honest with Him, I realized I had the spacing of my phrase all wrong.
I took the pen and wrote the phrase again, this time inserting a vital space:
God Is Now Here
He was so present, and though he had been silent, He never left me. I sat there in the seat with tears running down my cheeks. No sobbing or histrionics–just a few sweet moments of letting my soul be comforted by the thought that God was now here. All I had to do was embrace Him.
I learned a necessary lesson through that hard season and countless others to come: In our relationship with God, there are times of both scarcity and bounty, leanness and lushness, but He never neglects us.
God is not one to break promises. In fact, He never has (Num. 23:19). In the Bible, He promised the people of Israel that He would remain faithful. He told Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and others that He would always be with them (Gen. 12:1-3; Ex. 3:17; Josh. 1:8-9). And before Jesus ascended to heaven, after His death and resurrection, He promised the disciples and all Christ-followers, “Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 20:28 NIV).
So we can rest assured that He will never neglect us, and even if He silences Himself for the sake of our sin or according to His own sovereignty, it is all part of His plan as a loving parent. True, His presence is not always felt. At times, we struggle to find intimacy with this God we cannot see and cannot touch. Yet there are other times when He is more real and close than any other person in our life.
Silence Stretches our Faith
Picture a rubber band hooked around a nail that is pounded firmly into a board. That nail represents God, and your thumb and index finger holding the rubber band represent you.
You can pull and stretch that band as much as you can, but the nail will not move; only you move and the rubber stretches. God never moves. He remains steadfast and true (Heb. 6:19-20). Yet you move closer and farther, closer and farther, all the while stretching the band. You never lose connection with God, but your proximity changes.
Our faith is stretched—sometimes slack, sometimes taut–when we walk with God. But as we remain faithful, we never lose connection. At times, God allows for distance and space from Himself, but He never lets go, moves, or disconnects. The seasons of silence allow for our faith to be stretched and God’s reliability to be realized.
John Zxerce said it well: “Authentic faith always leaves room for God to be silent.” There are seasons when God will not speak in a loud voice, or even speak at all, but we must never lose faith that He is present and has a plan.
Consider the prophet Elijah. A desperate man, he wanted nothing more than to know God was there, or else he’d rather die (1 Kings 19:4). He fled the evil Queen Jezebel, who was enraged and ready to murder him for killing her prophets (v. 2). As Elijah ran, God didn’t speak–but He did make His presence and providence known. He twice sent an angel to provide food and water (vv. 6-7). God kept silent, stretching the faith of Elijah, and making him wait until he got to Mt. Horeb, about two hundred miles north.
Since there are about two thousand steps in a mile, Elijah took over four hundred thousand strides before he heard the voice of God again. Every time the sole of his foot hit the ground, he had to have wondered, God, where are you? SPEAK! Yet all the while, Elijah was moving closer to the nail.
Elijah arrived at Mt. Horeb and found a cave to call home. There he waited. Finally, God asked a prodding (and perhaps slightly offensive) question to Elijah, “What are you doing here?” (v. 9). You can imagine Elijah’s human thoughts at that point: Really, you’re asking what I’m doing here? I am running for my life! I’ve done nothing but obey you, God, and now they want to kill me.
Elijah didn’t get too demanding with God, but he seemed to project an attitude: “God, are you just going to stay silent, or are you going to do something here?”
At that point, God did something profound. He had Elijah stand on the hill by his cave to watch a clear display of supernatural power and to make a point that God’s voice isn’t always what we think it is.
First, the Lord sent a windstorm that broke the rocks to pieces, but God was not in it (v. 11).
Second, the Lord sent an earthquake, but God was not in it (v. 11).
Third, God sent a raging fire, but God was not in it (v. 12).
In all these dramatic and powerful acts of nature, God was not there. In the most obvious and miraculous signs, God was not tangibly, palpably there. But then . . .
As the smoke was passing and the mounds of rock were piled high, Elijah waited fearfully in the darkness of the cave. Suddenly, a low whisper called Elijah back to the entrance of the cave. Nothing but a whisper (v.12).
Elijah covered his face with his cloak, and God give him the chance to ask for something again. This time, God responded with a promise and a plan. He spoke clearly as to what He wanted Elijah to do and even told him that He had already prepared seven thousand troops to protect Israel.
God was there. God was listening. God had a plan in the works much greater than Elijah could have ever dreamed.
Focus on the Process, Not the Destination
So a fair question to ask is this: If God knew all the things He was preparing and doing for Elijah, why didn’t He tell him earlier? Why all the heartache until the big reveal?
Not only does it seem like God did that in Elijah’s life, but it feel like He does that to us as well. He knows the ending–a good ending at that–and yet He waits to tell us. Why?
There are probably several reasons God holds out on us and doesn’t share the end result:
- He wants us to trust Him (Isa. 41:10)
- He doesn’t need us challenging His good judgment (Prov. 4:4-5)
- He knows things we don’t know (Matt. 6:25-33)
- He gives us not the end we requested, but one that is the best for us (Jas. 4:3)
Perhaps the most important reason is that the process of getting to the end is just as important as the destination.
In Elijah’s case, God wanted to reveal things along the way that he wouldn’t have been able to if He had just jumped to the conclusion and rolled the credits. In the same way, if God is always telling us how our situation will end, we will not be as pliable and attentive to learn what He has for us as the process unfolds.
God is always discipling us. He is more than a majestic Mr. Miyagi, teaching us like Karate Kid, all we need to know to stay alive in the world. He is our Creator, sustainer, and sanctifier, making us more into the image of His Son every day. No trial is too big for God to overcome, and no circumstance is too small for Him to use to teach us.
In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis said, “We are a divine work of art, something that God is making and therefore something which he will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.” The seasons of silence we experience are opportunities for God to make His presence known in our life. The end process is where He proclaims the good news that He is not a far-off God, but close to us through Jesus Christ.
God is now here. To believe this, we need a perspective change. It may feel like God is far, but He promised that He never would be. We must trust Him in the process. We must have faith in His plan. Though He may be silent, we can always assume His presence is near.